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Bold, Bald, Beautiful: Breast Cancer Survivors Embrace Their Stories

Teenya Gilliam had just lost her hair from chemo. She wasn’t yet comfortable going to the grocery store without a wig on, let alone being photographed. Yet, she found herself in September 2017 dolled up—and wigless—waiting to be photographed on a crowded street.

The occasion: Pamper & Portraits, a day aimed at allowing survivors to focus on caring for themselves, rather than on their diagnosis. New Jersey photographer Jackie Stinsman planted the seeds of the Pamper & Portraits initiative after her cousin was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2017. “The only thing I could think of to do, besides bake a casserole, was to provide her with family portraits before she starts this next chapter,” Stinsman says.

After a successful shoot with her cousin, Stinsman partnered with Victoria Duda, American Cancer Society community development manager and campaign leader, to create a similar event on a larger scale. Her vision had the help of a new American Cancer Society initiative, Mamas Move Mountains, which encourages moms in Philadelphia and New Jersey to use their passions to battle cancer. “We’re trying to find and engage moms to make an impact in the fight against cancer in whatever ways that make sense to them,” Duda says. “The American Cancer Society’s Mamas Move Mountains initiative is not limited to photography, but mobilizes powerful women to use their unique gifts and talents to lead the fight for a world without cancer.”

The first official Pamper & Portraits shoot featured three survivors and took place amid the Wood Street Fair in Burlington, NJ. Patty Evangelista offered hair and makeup, and Susan Padrone, a personal stylist, pulled a few outfits for each woman based on their favorite colors and a few words they’d use to describe themselves. Gilliam posed alongside her nurse navigator from the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, NJ, Sue Saporito, who was herself celebrating 10 years cancer-free. While getting glammed up and having her photo taken was a bit outside of her comfort zone, Saporito decided to get involved—and recruit her patient and friend, Gilliam, to share in the day as well—when she heard about the project from a contact at American Cancer Society. “There’s always a silver lining to everything that you go through, and in my diagnosis, that was being able to relate to other survivors,” Saporito says. “I don’t tell all of my patients, but when I do, it’s amazing how you can see the trust appear. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’ve been through this too?’”

Gilliam, a medical assistant for the urology department at CHOP, says seeing Saporito “hurdle through everything she’s gone through” and come out smiling has been a constant encouragement. The experience also provided Gilliam a new outlook as she went through chemo, as well as the confidence to show off her bald head.

“When I first looked in the mirror after being made up and styled, I cried,” Gilliam says. “I always had an image of what I looked like being bald, but I hadn’t seen photos, and I saw that I actually looked pretty.” Gilliam has a poster from that day on her wall, blown-up poster size, to remind her of what she’s gone through over the past year—as well as all that’s ahead of her. She was told last winter that she’s cancer-free.

Padrone and Stinsman both say they plan to recreate Pamper & Portraits, but they also hope to see other women connect with Mamas Move Mountains to organize their own Pamper & Portraits events—or even come up with their own way to make an impact. “It’s about figuring out how to use your passions and abilities to help people, putting your gifts to good use,” Padrone says.

“Anyone can bring them a casserole,” Stinsman adds. “What can you bring to the table that others can’t?”

For more information, visit phillymag.com/thinkpink